Reviewed By Bob Verini
Shakespeare Festival of Los Angeles
Through March 6
Late in the second act (and third hour) of Ameryka, a world premiere presentation by Nancy Keystone’s Critical Mass Performing Group, a dapper gent played by Ray Ford steps up to bear witness to a gay bar encounter with Witold, a young native Pole. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, an argument broke out when Witold took exception to his new friend’s expressed opinion that Ronald Reagan — plague ignorer extraordinaire — was the lowest of the low. “He is a hero to us in Poland,” Witold insisted — an American leader who expressed solidarity with Lech Walesa’s nation of freedom fighters. Ford’s sadness emphasizes the gulf that can suddenly appear between two humans who seem to be clicking. And on a dance floor yet.
Before I explain why this brief non sequitur monologue so grabbed me during Ameryka and haunts me still, a description of Keystone’s wildly ambitious, serious and satiric, psycho-social-historical-political theatrical collage is in order. But even before that, let me recommend that if you are interested in America’s role in the world and a theatrical investigation thereof, or you simply want to experience the handiwork of a talented, tight-knit committed collective in a rough theater space, you should make plans without delay to swing by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles during the one month run.
The lofty goal of Ameryka is to investigate, in broad strokes, the complex 250-year relationship between Poland and the United States of America. Our feisty republic, we’re told, was an immediate beacon of hope for the hapless Eastern Europeans who, let’s face it, served as a geopolitical football among the Old World Great Powers for millennia. Poles, we’re told, were so taken by our Declaration of Independence that it inspired them to organize, in 1791, the first-ever constitution on the European continent. It only stood for a year, but still. That’s meaningful.
To explore that meaning and what became of it, Keystone and Company venture far and wide across continents and centuries. The good guys include Tadeusz Kosciuzko (Drew Stafford Harper), fabled linchpin of our successful Revolution; his companion Agrippa Hull (Lorne Green), a free man of color; Chief Little Turtle (Christopher Salazar), who keeps wandering mournfully across the stage whenever moral gravity is needed; Gene Jefferson (Ford), an apparent stand-in for Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeting goodwill ambassador in Warsaw; and Anna Walentynowicz (Valerie Spencer), a real-life Gdansk activist whose jailing and torturing helped to impel the Solidarnosc movement and riots. Oh, and let’s not forget Gary Cooper and Carl Foreman, star and writer, respectively, of High Noon, periodically evoked as an American document studied by cinema-savvy, freedom-thirsting Poles. These various figures engage in crosstalk and simultaneous pantomime and spoken action, as well as songs, movement and direct address.
The governing idea, as historical characters and periods ping off each other, seems to be that Poland genuinely believed in America’s rhetoric of freedom and equality, and even as America systematically betrayed and traduced its own ideals, Poles eventually found enough strength in them to throw off the Soviet jackboot in 1989, the “Year of Wonders.”
Or you could boil it down even further, as one character does in passing, to a simple: “The world is one small place, and all of us are strangely woven together.” Not that Keystone is actively trying to reduce all these ideas and all this spectacle to simple terms, but it’s a theme that keeps bubbling up, bidden or not.
Lined up against the aforementioned long list of the virtuous are the likes of Reagan’s CIA director William J. Casey (Russell Edge), with his passion for waging the Cold War, Thomas Jefferson (Curt Bonnem), the complacent slaveowner far too willing to sell out friend Tadeusz, and two centuries’ worth of assorted Washington bullyboys eager to use Poland for their own ends.
But truth be told, Critical Mass doesn’t have nearly as much interest in the villains of this story as its heroes; the bad guys are painted as irredeemable. Ameryka has already decided who all the white hats and black hats are, leaving us neither room nor incentive to work out ideas for ourselves. Which makes the show an impressive if overstuffed work of agitprop, though you may wish, as I do, that it chose to treat its figures in a more even-handed and nuanced way.
Take the show’s use of Roman Catholic iconography, for instance. Casey is portrayed as a religious nut who demands his CIA team begin every briefing with the Sign of the Cross, while the show’s Poles are permitted to wear their Catholic faith sincerely and un-ironically on their sleeves. All of that is of course the company’s right. But when Tony Kushner, in Angels in America, can invest a man he finds as personally odious as Roy Cohn with dignity and positive arguments, it seems a shame to write off Casey as a mere benighted zealot, and show no interest in what really made him tick.
By the same token, when Catholicism as practiced in Poland has demonstrably and historically served as a cover for the most violent acts of anti-Semitism, it seems off, somehow, to toss in a couple of references to Jews and let the whole contradiction go at that.
This is actually why Ford’s gay bar story is so striking: It’s so human and multidimensional. Its genuine dialectic raises the material, however briefly, beyond sheer sloganeering, and I wish there were more such complexity on view.
But one thing I’ll say for Ameryka: If you don’t like it, wait a minute. There’s always something new coming down the pike, plenty to entertain and plenty to provoke. Some sequences flat-out don’t work: A mash-up of House Un-American Activities testimony is as tedious as it is unrevealing. But there are also sequences that are flat-out brilliant, such as a lengthy, elaborate pantomime of Warsaw resistance in which parts of radios are passed from citizen to citizen (even through the door of a confessional) to build the illegal studio of Radio Solidarity. Critical Mass is still finding its way through this ungainly piece, and even if you’re exhausted by the length and a sense of overkill, the passion and commitment of all concerned infuses every minute of it.
I was privileged to be invited to an afternoon rehearsal of Ameryka a few weeks ago, which involved a long physical, Polish-accented warmup and work on selected vignettes. I was struck then, and even more so now, by the precision and focus of the company in getting things just so — running sequences two, three, four times with little adjustments. It paid off by the end, amply rewarding the spectator now. (And I recommend that my fellow critics seek out companies as welcoming and open as this one, to take a look at the process before assessing the result.)
My final assessment is that Ameryka is as rich and as messy, as flawed and as noble, as the Amerykan experiment itself. And like the USA, the production will change and grow, and it’s sure to be worth examining, no matter what stage of its development it finds itself.
Shakespeare Festival of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., Los Angeles; Fri-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; no Sun 7 p.m. performance on Feb. 28; Mon 8 p.m. performances on Feb. 22 and 29; through Mar. 6. www.criticalmassperformancegroup.com. Running time: two hours 40 minutes with one intermission.